The Strangers (2008)

6 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

1996’s “Scream” pointed out that horror movies featuring psychotic killers are much scarier when no motives are declared for their atrocious deeds. That may be true, but maybe a simpler motive than you’d expect has a creepier element to it. And here we have “The Strangers,” which features masked killers who invade a couple’s home and terrorize them. Why do they do this? “Because you were home.”

That’s it. That line hits a strong note because even in a horror film such as this, being at home won’t help you at all. You think you’re safe and alone, but you’re not. That is a very chilling thought. There are times when I’m home alone and I hear some noise outside and I don’t feel like I’m safe. It could just be a raccoon or something, but it could be someone trying to get in.

“The Strangers” is a chilling horror film about such a home invasion. It’s the debut feature of Bryan Bertino, who pulls out all the stops to create something tense and disturbing. The plot isn’t new, but Bertino’s cinematography makes for great production value and helps make “The Strangers” into something less than a geek show with a lot of blood and gore. There is more terror and suspense here than anything else, keeping the audience on edge throughout the film’s brisk 85-minute running time.

The film takes place in a cabin in the woods as Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) arrive in the middle of the night after a wedding reception. James has proposed to Kristen, who has turned him down. So things are uncomfortable and uneasy for the two of them, and they awkwardly try to keep conversation to keep the night from being too unpleasant for both of them. But before they get a chance to make amends, there’s a knock at the door. It seems strange and they shrug it off, but before long, they realize that there are three people in masks who harass them and make their night miserable. With no one around to help and nowhere to run, Kristen and James find themselves fighting for their lives alone in this house.

“The Strangers” produces a great deal of chilling scenes. The most effective are the ones without music. Why? Because we don’t need it. Take a look at the scene in which you see a figure in the background as Kristen walks forward, not noticing. You don’t need a sharp music cue to show that the figure is there and that he or she means death. The audience will scream because it’s out of the ordinary. Sound effects also play a good part in the film, whether it’s banging on a door, record repetitions, shotgun blasts, etc. But it’s the cinematography that must be praised. It allows us to see things that shouldn’t be there and we’re surprised to see (like that scene I mentioned before), and it always shows purpose with each shot.

Something else I should bring up about the creepiness factor—those masks the killers wear are very freaky. They’re mostly blank white faces (hello, Michael Myers) that are enough to terrify and shock.

The characters—these two people played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman—are always engaging. I liked them and I hoped they would make it out of this scary situation alive. Sure, they make mistakes, but they are bright enough to know their limitations even though they come to them a little later than they expected. My favorite moment is when they find a shotgun and Speedman confesses he doesn’t know how to use it. “I’m not sure I even know how to load it.” “But I thought you said you went hunting with your dad.” “That…was just something I said.” And then, without giving anything away, when Speedman does something terrible by accident, I really felt bad for him.

I have to admit when “The Strangers” opened with a disclaimer saying it was inspired by true events, I rolled my eyes in disbelief. First of all, we know that’s not true and this isn’t “Fargo.” Second of all, don’t have someone read what we can. If Bertino (or whoever made this decision) is concerned about blind people seeing the movie, here’s a newsflash for you—most of the movie is silent anyway! Third of all, don’t start the disclaimer saying it was based on a true story and then end it with stating that the “brutal events that took place are still entirely known!” Are you trying to create controversy?

But then once “The Strangers” kicked in with the story, I got into it. It was chilling, disturbing, well-made, and very effective.

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